By Robert Hickson 29/10/2021

This post is a collection of recent articles linked by the themes climate change and looking ahead. We are good at characterising the issues, but weaker at evoking what we gain from change.


IEA’s big shift

In May I noted the significance of the International Energy Agency’s announcement that further investments in new fossil fuel supplies is not needed.

They have now released their World Energy Outlook-2021 report. This notes that country commitments to reducing carbon emissions won’t achieve the necessary reductions to avoid more than a 1.5 degree temperature increase by 2050.

The report advocates for a more ambitious effort to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy. This builds on their strategic shift in May towards renewable energies. The Outlook report emphasises how disruptive the next decade will be in terms of changes in energy sources and supplies, and the consequent potential for geopolitical disruptions.

Kingsmill Bond has an excellent short summary of IEA’s press conference associated with the report’s release, and the change in arguments about energy change that the IEA makes.

It’s not all change though. The IEA report implies that we can mitigate at least some of the impacts of climate change while still having economic growth.


Getting to more sustainable lifestyles

That “growth is good” mantra is being increasingly challenged. Though it is very resistant to fundamental change.

Jeremy Lent argues that “the end of capitalism” is required to solve the climate crisis. That is a point that has been made by many others too. They emphasise that environmental damage isn’t just a consequence of our sources of energy and fuels. It’s a consequence of emphasising consumerism and economic growth.

Lent highlights the vested interests of multi-national corporations and how they are formally and informally excluding other important perspectives from discussions future directions. Not just in energy, but in food and other aspects of life.

Lent points out some of the initiatives that are taking a more communal or ecological approach to economics.

But I’m wary of throwing the capitalist baby out with the libertarian bathwater. That is a simplistic argument. It’s the unfettered aspects, and prioritising economic factors over others, that seem to be doing the harm.

What it takes to get to fairer and more sustainable consumption is explored in greater detail in the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles report from Germany’s Hot or Cool Institute.

Their 10 “Lessons from research on enabling sustainable lifestyles” on page 30 are particularly useful. Three of my favourites are:

  • Change needs to focus on the choice architecture (eg, “nudging”), social values and norms, physical infrastructure, and provisioning systems. 

  • It is important to differentiate between the factors that can be addressed at the individual level and those that are beyond individual control, and to recognise how the two are mutually reinforcing. 

  • People’s expressions of happiness correlate with the level of trust in the community, social ties, education, health, and meaningful employment; and these tend to be less consumerist. 

The report also emphasises that real change requires inspirational visions that show how needs can be met differently through ways that are less resource-intensive. Currently, the report states, most campaigns emphasise reductions and the loss of familiar ways of living. That doesn’t build a supportive coalition of the willing.

That’s a point made too by Noah Smith in his critique the degrowth movement.


Moving on from solutionism 

Going back to Lent, I also disagree with his view that there is a “solution” to the climate crisis. That is taking a simplistic view of a changing climate as a complicated issue that has a solution. It isn’t and doesn’t. There is no real winding back the atmospheric clock now (at least over the next few generations).

Ironically, a solutionist approach is also the one taken by those keen to keep much of the status quo. Everyone wants a clear solution even if there isn’t one.

Carbon Capture and Storage, for example. This is often most strongly advocated for by backers of fossil fuel and mining interests, has long over-promised and under delivered. There’s Gigatonnes of gap between current demonstration projects and meaningful effectiveness. Critics point to the magical thinking about how quickly such technologies can mature and be viable.

Plus, it is an approach that reinforces the current system of cleaning up the messes, rather than not creating them in the first place.


Climate change refugia

The focus is shifting to adaptation, alongside mitigation.

Cass Marketos discusses the emergence of “climate change refugia”. These are conservation efforts focussed not on restoration, but on looking ahead.

Some projects are looking at reforesting areas with species more likely to be able to survive warmer temperatures and more frequent wildfires. Others are about identifying habitats or environments that appear to be more persistent despite changes in the climate. These could provide “slow lanes” enabling species to adapt to changing climates.

These mostly seem to be focused on terrestrial environments, though marine ones are being looked for too. And it remains to be seen if they work.


Climate shadows

Photo by Luís Eusébio on Unsplash

Emma Pattee has proposed that instead of climate footprints we should be thinking about our climate shadows.

She makes the very good point that just accounting for your individual climate footprint provides no information about what your real impacts are.

This is illustrated by examples of a frequent flyer climate scientist and a sedentary PR person who works for the oil industry. Their work and influence can have very different impacts on the practices and behaviours of others.

Your climate shadow is a broader accounting of all of your choices, and how they may influence climate impacts. Something that follows you. It includes a carbon footprint, as well as lifestyle expectations and behaviours, choices (such as the number of children or pets, the type of work you do), and what attention and effort you devote to climate issues.

Pattee doesn’t regard it as a new measure. Most of the things she describes can’t be converted into realistic kilograms of carbon.

It’s value is as a prompt. Less actuarial and more activating. Improving awareness of what you do and the impacts that you may be having, particularly in the hard to measure behaviours and activities, and seeing if there is anything else that you can do. That applies to organisations as well as individuals.

I’d expand the concept to be an environmental shadow so that it is more inclusive of other environmental impacts (energy and water use, waste and recycling, pest control, etc).


Komorebi – shifting from characterisation to evocation

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Metaphorical footprints and shadows are by their nature backward looking. They account for what we’ve done and identify what can be reduced.

But, as the 1.5-Degrees Lifestyles report discusses this doesn’t provide a compelling vision or attractor of the type of lifestyle you (or society) can achieve through making those reductions and changes.

We usually confuse vision with a list of characteristics; like renewable energy, sustainable lifestyles, or a circular economy. Or as Erik Hoel described a lot of technology futures, “plotless sci-fi.

A motivating vision has to have an emotional allure.

The closest counterpoint to shadow I can come up with at the moment for this type of vision is Komorebi. A Japanese word, variously and imperfectly translated as ‘sunlight filtering through leaves’, or ‘the scattered light that filters through when sunlight shines through trees.’

Something intangible perhaps, or incompletely articulated, but none-the-less it stirs the soul or is evocative. That has got to be something that we need to guide rather than prescribe, to help get us through the coming decades.

I can’t think of examples from the futures field that capture this. There may be some out there, just not in the corporate world. Art and literature do this best.

I’m not going to attempt to describe such a vision here, that’s going to take considerable time and skill. Something to focus on over the summer I hope.


Many of the articles I’ve included here I came across via Andrew Curry’s great Just Two Things newsletter. He highlights a diverse collection of interesting topics and writers, and provides insightful commentaries on them.

Header photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash